When I was a child I was asked to draw a picture of Heaven. I drew a picture of a green meadow in Spring time, with a stream running along its edge, lush green grass and wild flowers, lambs gambolling, blue sky, sunshine and fluffy white clouds. I have always loved spring time.
My first awareness of death was when my maternal grandmother died when I was seven. She was gentle and kind and beloved by all the family. My Mum and Aunt took me to see her when she was laid out in the chapel of rest. They pointed out to me that she was no longer there, yet she looked beautiful and at peace. She had gone to heaven. And I saw and believed. As a child I had a strong, uncomplicated faith.
As an adult I have wandered from the way on occasions and come back with questions. I am more fearful of death as an adult. I remember when my husband and I decided to make a basic will. It was hard to discuss it. It was hard to face the reality of death. I intend to write informal instructions for my funeral –yet keep putting it off, not ready to think about it.
I wonder why it is hard to consider death in the midst of life. My Dad once pointed out to me the following quotation which celebrates the essence of life.
“There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother, who would wish to die?”
“In sickness, Jasper?”
“There’s the sun and stars, brother.”
“In blindness, Jasper?”
“There’s the wind on the heath, brother; if I only could feel that, I would gladly live for ever.”
(Lavengro, George Borrow (1851))
Perhaps I do not want to think about death as I am frightened about the way I might die. Will I be taken by surprise by its suddenness, or will it be slow and lingering; will I be ready to die or will it be too soon; will I be surrounded by people who care for me or will I be alone?
Don’t let me die in the dark, Lord
And not on a winter’s day
And not in the afternoon, Lord
When the light is slipping away
But let me go in the morning, Lord
In the sunshine, in the spring
So it won’t seem so much like the end, Lord
But the start of everything
(A prayer from Symphony of Life compiled by Anna Jeffery)
A few weeks ago I was listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 when I was introduced to the concept of a soul midwife. Felicity Warner saw the need for soul midwifery and has introduced the concept. Previously she had worked as a journalist specialising in health matters. She had met young mothers who were dying of breast cancer. It was often at the end of the interviews when the microphone was turned off that she had deeper conversations. It was then that the young mums admitted what a lonely place they were in. They put on a brave face for their young children and families, staying strong and brave for them, saying all would be well when often they felt the opposite. They felt as if they were living a double life. Felicity wanted to respond to the need she saw in these young women and to be an intimate companion to any person who is dying, especially if they have no-one else.
In the interview she was asked what ingredients lead to a good death. Often the assumption is that good pain relief is what matters. She finds other things may matter just as much. Sometimes it is about the place of death; being at home or even being outside in the fresh air. It may be about whom they want beside them or who they might not want to be there. Sometimes it is about reconciliation and restoring relationships and having the chance to say sorry. Pets may have an important place, or going to a favourite place for the last time. She mentioned the zoo keeper, Mario, in Rotterdam, wanting to see the giraffes he had tended to say good-bye. A picture on the internet has gone viral which shows their meeting where he is being kissed tenderly by one of his giraffes.
What if we do not have the ideal death? There have been so many sudden deaths in the news recently, including in our local news. Recently a young 18-year-old man, called Callum Brown was killed tragically in a road traffic accident in Todmorden. Other young people have died in the tragedy in South Korea. There must be many others.
A few years ago, Carolyn, my eldest sister died suddenly and alone in a violent death. I worried that she would be as startled and shocked by the transition from life to death as we were by the fact of her death. I was grateful for the talk and prayers given by Rev Graham Kent the following day, and it reassured me that she is in a safe place. At her funeral, a butterfly fluttered above the altar at the moment of the final blessing. I wrote the following in a poem:
A butterfly circling
Above the altar;
Tears crowded my eyes
So I failed to see
The freed spirit of you
Our sister Cassie
Making your journey
After Carolyn’s death, I discovered so much more about my sister. I knew she was inspired by Celtic Christianity, even during the times she had fallen out with conventional churches. I did not know that in the Celtic faith, the butterfly is the symbol for the soul. I was introduced to the writings of John O’Donohue which she had loved. His writings helped me to realise the importance of Blessings.
I think of her, especially when I am digging in the garden or admiring the dappled sunlight on a walk. I think of her when I see a butterfly as it flutters past or when it opens its wings to the sunshine. I think of her when I feel the soft breeze on my face or when I smell the fragrance of a rose.
Love is a strong as death,
Its ardour unyielding as the grave.
Many rivers cannot quench love;
Rivers cannot wash it away
If one were to give
All the wealth of his house for love,
It would be utterly scorned. (Song of Songs 8: 6-7)
- If Heaven Gretchen Peters
- The Lord’s my Shepherd
I pray that you have the blessing
Of being consoled and sure about your death.
May you know in your soul
There is no need to be afraid.
When your time comes, may you have
Every blessing and strength you need.
May there be a beautiful welcome for you
In the home you are going to.
You are not going somewhere strange,
Merely back to the home you have never left.
The Soul of Gerontius by Cardinal Newman
I went to sleep and now I am refreshed. A strange refreshment for I feel in me an inexpressible lightness and a sense of freedom as I were at length myself, and ne’er had been before.
How still it is!
I hear no more the busy beat of time. No, nor my fluttering breath nor struggling pulse. Nor does one moment differ from the rest…
Another marvel …Someone has me fast within His ample palm.